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What is Tactile Sensitivity?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Tactile sensitivity is an increased sensitivity to touch that makes the sensory experience of touch feel noxious or peculiar. It is sometimes referred to as tactile defensiveness to distinguish between it and normal levels of sensitivity to touch. People can also develop the opposite issue, insensitivity. There are a number of causes for this sensory disorder and it can be addressed in several different ways.

Signs often emerge at a very early age. People with tactile sensitivity may dislike clothing, complaining about the texture and the fastenings. They may shrink away from touch and dislike the texture of objects they physically interact with, ranging from glitter to books. Sensations that other people experience as soft, smooth, or pleasant may be perceived as painful by people who have sensory problems.

This difference in perception is believed to be the result of variations in the way that the brain processes tactile input. In individuals with this type of sensitivity, the brain has difficulty filtering information out and distinguishing between meaningful tactile information and information that is not relevant. As a result, touch floods the brain with information and it can feel overwhelming for the patient. This leads the patient to avoid touch when possible.

People with autism spectrum disorders and other cognitive disabilities often experience varying degrees of tactile sensitivity. This phenomenon can also be observed in some people who have experienced trauma and in people with certain mental illnesses. Medication and neurological disorders can also create unusual responses to touch. Some people have difficulty identifying tactile sensations as the problem, and may develop behavioral problems as they attempt to cope with the noxious sensations.

In very young children, tactile sensitivity can interfere with the development of motor skills and may impede other developmental milestones as well. The sense of touch provides a great deal of information about the world and people who perceive touch as painful and avoid it will have difficulty interacting with their environment. The developing brain may also fail to make some important connections without sensory input to help it understand how to process information. This can lead to learning disabilities and other impairments.

Treatments for tactile sensitivity vary, depending on the root cause. Adjusting medications can help people with sensitivity caused by drugs as well as being beneficial for people with neurological disorders. Psychotherapy may be effective in some patients, with a mental health professional using desensitization techniques to make the patient feel more comfortable. For other people, making some lifestyle adjustments may be necessary.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ramnboc22 — On Apr 27, 2013

I am 56 year old adult. I have extreme skin sensitivity for the last five years. About 98 percent of all fabrics are not wearable. During the hotter months, my sensitivity is even worse. Hove you heard of any adult that has this kind of problem?

By anon318252 — On Feb 06, 2013

As an occupational therapist, I deal with these sensory issues daily. I've had great success with with a variety of techniques, sensory integration therapy, therapeutic listening protocol, wilbarger's deep pressure protocol, etc. Please consult us; we can help!

By anon306924 — On Dec 02, 2012

There is a new children's book out for children with tactile sensitivity. It's called "Issue Tissue featuring Ricky Sticky."

One of the book's authors is a friend. She cares deeply for children with special needs and is very talented. I hope this book can be helpful to parents and children.

By amysamp — On Sep 10, 2011

I work with kids who are diagnosed with autism and we get kids on many different areas on the autism spectrum, but regardless we see autism and tactile sensitivity connections.

And sometimes it is not tactile sensitivity but the opposite, where these kids are hyposensitive to tactile sensations so they strongly seek out tactile information. For example, these kids may be strong huggers, not because they mean to hug tight, but they have to hug that tight seemingly to receive tactile input.

For some of our kids with tactile issues we use weighted vests and weighted blankets and they can be used for a variety of reasons and effects.

I would argue why or why not a child with tactile sensitivity might actually get something out of these tools based on my experience, but rather I would refer to an occupational therapist, they are the gurus on when to try these weighted instruments and what to look for when using them.

By David09 — On Sep 09, 2011

@MrMoody - You’ve raised good points, however not all tactile insensitivity is emotional in nature.

Some of these people are responding to materials and fabric, not skin. Here I believe it’s a mental disorder.

I think this is a terrible situation. I worked as a teacher for a few years in an elementary school, and we used a lot of tactile approaches to education. Blocks, crafts and things like that were all used to help kids learn about their environment.

These also aided their mental development as well. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a child to look at other kids frolicking about with hands on activities and yet be forced to sit in the corner, of their own choosing, because the mere touch of those objects sent the child into a sort of information overload.

By MrMoody — On Sep 09, 2011

@miriam98 - I think you nailed it; except I believe that some of these people have developed tactile sensitivity as a result of a trauma, not as a cause of it.

For example, I can imagine someone who has been physically or sexually abused not responding well to touch from anyone. The slightest human touch may cause such a person to react as if he or she is being attacked in some way.

Child trauma can last a lifetime. However, like the article says, therapy sessions can help the victim identify the root cause of their problems and develop an openness to touch.

By miriam98 — On Sep 08, 2011

I can think of nothing worse for your emotional development than to have increased sensitivity to touch.

Growing up without being able to touch others can make you emotionally insensitive and fragile inside, I would think. It’s probably cliché to say it but I think everyone needs a hug now and then.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have skin sensitivity that would cause you to recoil from what you need the most!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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